"OKAY, GIBSON, IT'S time for you to stop your drinking and whoring, we've come to prepare you for the Portal."
Nephredana and the two women who were with her had come up the spiral stairs to the circular chamber on the third level without either Gibson or apparently Thief Lanier hearing them. Gibson had been drowsing, basking in the warm weariness and the soft, rose glow of the walls. Gibson sat up with a start, and the falcon let out a high-pitched angry squawk. Thief Lanier, on the other hand, hardly reacted at all. She had been lying spread and naked, looking at herself in the overhead minor, with the tiny ornamental lizard curied above her left breast. At the sound of Nephredana's voice, she languidly rolled over onto her stomach while the lizard scuttled for cover in a fold of the red satin bedcover.
"Have you come to take him from me?"
Nephredana looked round the room, taking in the whole aftermath of the debauch. The spark of rivalry between the two women was plain. "You've had him long enough, haven't you?"
Thief Lanier propped herself up on one elbow. "I suppose I have. Where are you going to make Preparation?"
"Right here, if you have no objection."
Thief Lanier shook her head. "No objection at all. Do I need to assist you?"
Nephredana smiled. "I think you've done your part. You're welcome to watch, though."
"Then I think I'll put some clothes on."
Thief Lanier started gathering up her jewelry and what was left of the flame negligee, and Gibson also made moves preparatory to getting up, but Nephredana waved him back again. "Don't move, Gibson, you're just as we want you."
"Shouldn't I put some clothes on, too?"
Nephredana shook her head. "You're exactly as we want you."
Gibson rubbed the drowse out of his eyes and took his first good look at Nephredana and her two companions. They were like a trio of Valkyries come to carry him to Valhalla. Nephredana herself was wearing fulll plate body armor that was burnished to a deep, rich shine. From the way she moved, the armor was either extremely light or she was much stronger than he had ever imagined. Gibson recognized the woman on her left as the one who'd been drunkenly kissing him in the Rearing Eagle before Thief Lanier had picked him up, only now the Day-Glo green paint had been replaced by a somber cowl and long robe. The third woman was equally serious in her attire, if a little more up-to-date, clad as she was in a very tight black leadier motorcycle suit with all of the obligatory zippers and chains and a red dragon on the back of the jacket. In another time and place they would have made a great set of backup singers. The thought jumped into Gibson's mind uninvited, but he quickly pushed it aside as unworthy of such a weighty occasion.
Nephredana positioned herself at the foot of the bed. "Are you ready, Joe?"
"I guess as ready as I'll ever be. What is this preparation? Some kind of ritual? "
Nephredana's voice was surprisingly gentle. "Don't ask any questions, Joe. Just do exactly as you're told. First, I want you to lay flat on your back with your arms extended and your legs together."
Gibson did as he was told even though he was a little surprised that the Preparation for the Portal was turning out to be so physically elaborate. He'd expected a few incantations to be muttered over him and that would be that.
Gibson stared up at his own reflection. "I look like I'm ready to be crucified."
The woman from the Rearing Eagle spoke reprovingly. "Please don't speak, Joe."
Nephredana seemed to be in command of the ceremony. "First the bowl, the oil, and the coins."
A gold bowl, about eight inches in diameter, was placed on Gibson's chest and then filled with a pungently scented oil.
"Remain very still, Joe. Don't try and move or we'll have to tie you down."
A gold coin about the size of a silver dollar was placed on the palm of each of Gibson's hands. He saw in the mirror above him that Thief Lanier, now dressed in her jeans and shirt, was watching from the transparent stairs,
Nephredana spoke again, "Now the book."
The woman in the biker leathers handed her a thick, leather-bound volume in which a number of places in the text had been marked by black ribbons. She opened it to the first passage and started reading from it in a low voice.
"Isa ya! Isa ya! Ri ega! Ri ega!
Bi esha bi esha! Xtyilqua! Xiyilqua!
Limuttikunu kima qutri litilli shatmi ye
Ina zumri ya isa ya
Ina zumri ya ri ega
Ina zumri ya bi esha
Ina zumri ya xiyilqua."
As she read aloud, the rose glow of the walls seemed.to dim and deepen like a sinister sunset, and Gibson could feel sweat forming on his body. The temptation to move was very strong, to jump up and ruin the whole Preparation, anything to buy him a respite or a bit more time. Unfortunately, if he did make a run for it, it would probably only buy enough time for an angry mob of idimmu to either stuff him bodily into the Portal or hang him from the nearest approximation of a tree.
Nephredana spoke in English again. "Now the wafer."
The woman from the Rearing Eagle held up a round, flat, white wafer about the size of a half-dollar. " Extend your tongue, Joe."
Gibson stuck out his tongue, and the woman placed the wafer on it. All feeling immediately left his mouth, and a rapid numbness spread through his whole body. What were they trying to do, turn him into a zombie? Maybe it would be the best thing. At least he'd feel no pain. Nephredana turned to the next marked passage in the leather-bound book. For this reading, her voice was louder and more forceful.
"Zi dingir anna kanpa!
Zi dingir kia kanpa!
Zi dingir uruki kanpa!
Zi dingir nebo kanpa!
Zi dingir nergal kanpu!
Zi dingir ninib kanpu!
Zi dingir annwina dingir galgallaenege kanpu!
Gibson's body was now completely without feeling, and as he stared transfixed at his reflection, his own eyes seemed to be boring back into his brain. Nephredana's voice came from a long way away.
The woman in leather snapped her gloved fingers and blue fire appeared at their tips. She held her burning hand above her head and then plunged it into the bowl on Gibson's chest. A column of blue flame leaped almost to the mirror on the ceiling. Gibson felt nothing. Either it was the effect of whatever drug had been in the wafer or the blue flames were a cold fire. Nephredana started reading again.
"Ia! Ia! Zi azag!
Ia! Ia! Zi azkak!
Ia! Ia! Kutulu zi kur!
With the last word the flames went out as though a switch had been thrown or a tap turned off, no dying down or gradual dwindling, just poof, out. All that remained was a thin haze of smoke, hanging in the air.
Gibson didn't like the sound of this and he said so. "Whose blood are we talking about?"
Nephredana held up a hand, "Do not speak, Joe, or you will have to be gagged. We are going to take a very small amount of your blood. It won't hurt you." She turned to the woman in leather. "The dagger?"
Thief Lanier came down the stairs. "Use the razor. It will be better."
She was holding out the Charleston Bluesteel, but Nephredana hesitated before taking it. "You performed the illusion of the hawk?"
Thief Lanier nodded. "I did."
"And it was good?"
"It was good."
Nephredana nodded. "Then you're right, we will use the razor."
She took the Charleston Bluesteel from Thief Lanier and passed it to the woman in leather, then she removed the coin from the palm of Gibson's left hand. The woman in leather opened the blade out with a flick that showed she was well accustomed to straightedge razors and at the same time picked up Gibson's left wrist. "Barra ante malda! Barra ange ge yene!"
The woman in leather recited this part from memory. Nephredana opened the book again. "Namtar galra zibi mu unna te!"
The woman in leather sliced a nick out of the tip of Gibson's little finger and a red bead of blood appeared. She moved Gibson's arm so his hand was over the bowl on his chest. Drops of blood fell into the bowl, mingling with the oil.
The single word from Nephredana caused a ball of flame, this time green, to explode from the bowl and hang in the air above Gibson until it dissipated after a few seconds.
"And now the anointing."
The woman in leather closed the razor and handed it back to Thief Lanier; then she leaned over Gibson and lifted the bowl from his chest. When she stepped back, he could see in the mirrored ceiling that the bottom of the bowl had left a mark like a brand where it had rested on his chest) a broken pentacle contained in a circle.
Gibson couldn't hold back a cry of protest. "You've marked me, damn it."
Nephredana's eyes flashed. "I won't tell you again to be quiet."
Gibson bit off his complaints. He didn't particularly want to be gagged and helpless. The ceremony continued. Nephredana and the woman in leather stood one on either side of the woman from the Rearing Eagle in the robe and cowl. The woman in leather held the bowl while Nephredana removed the gauntlets of her suit of armor. She placed them on the bed beside the book and then turned to face the woman in the robe and cowl.
"Are you ready?"
The woman nodded. "I'm ready."
Nephredana pushed back the cowl and slipped the robe from her shoulders. It dropped to the floor behind her, revealing that the woman from the Rearing Eagle was naked beneath them apart from a web of silver chains around her hips. Even preoccupied as he was, Gibson couldn't help being reminded that she had a magnificent body.
Nephredana put the ritual question a second time. "I ask you again, are you ready?"
The woman nodded a second time. "I'm ready." Nephredana dipped her hands into the bowl and began to smear the mixture of oil and blood all over the front of the woman's body. As Nephredana's hands moved over her breasts, the woman let out a long shuddering groan. "Ssarati sha!"
Nephredana replied in a soft voice. "Sha limnuti!" When the woman's torso and thighs were covered in the mixture of oil and blood, Nephredana stepped back, wiped her hands on a white towel handed to her by the woman in leather; then she picked up the book again and opened it.
"Epu-ush salam kashshapi-ia u kashapti-ia
Sha epishia u mutshtepishti-ia."
The woman from the Rearing Eagle climbed onto the bed and approached Gibson on all fours.
"Qu-u imtana-allu-u pi-ia!
Upu unti pi-ia iprusu!"
Now she was on top of him, squirming against his body, rubbing the oily mess from her skin onto his. If he hadn't been so numbed out, it probably would have been a memorable erotic experience, too, but drugged as he was since the administration of the wafer, it was about as exciting as a rubdown with a halibut. His loss, however, seemed to be the woman's gain. As she moved against him, her breath came in short ecstatic gasps. "… o Kakos Theos… o Kakos Dasimon… uh… o Daimon…"
And all the while, Nephredana's voice provided a steady counterpoint.
"Sha ipushu u mushtepishti-ia!
Kal amatusha malla-a sseri!
Alsi bararitum qablitim u namaritum!"
The woman from the Rearing Eagle let out a last climactic groan, and Nephredana's voice rose, in seeming sympathy, to a final shout. "TUSTE YESH SHIR ILLANI U MA YALKI!"
Somewhere outside the glass tower, something crashed like thunder, and the light from the walls strobed and flickered, agitating from red to purple and back to red again. The woman from the Rearing Eagle rolled off Gibson and away from him, lying sprawled on the bed, facedown and seemingly unconscious, while both Nephredana and the woman in leather sank to their knees as though exhausted by their efforts. Only Thief Lanier remained standing, and even she had the look of someone on the verge of going into shock. For a long time, none of them moved or spoke, and then, little by little, the disturbance in the light diminished and things returned more or less to normal, at least as normal as anything could be in the Hole in the Void.
Slowly, Nephredana got to her feet. There was a great weariness in her face and voice. "Rise, Joe Gibson, we have done all that can be done for you."
Gibson's whole body felt as though it belonged to someone else. "I'm not sure I can move."
"Try. You can move."
He turned his head and saw the gold coin that remained on the palm of his right hand. He closed his fingers around it and held it up. "What do I do with this?"
"Keep it. It may prove to be a talisman."
"And I need all the help that I can get?"
"You said that."
Gibson attempted to sit up and found that it was possible even though his muscles protested and, at the same time, his mind and body felt strangely detached one from the other. "What did you people do to me back there?"
"It was a basic purification and an infusion of energy, plus a number of protections against any third-entity intrusion."
"I don't feel like I've been infused, more like the energy has been drained out of me."
"You'll feel like that for a while, but then you'll start to grow stronger."
"How can you know any of it will work? I mean, you can't have done this before, right?"
"It is all in the footnotes to the Prophecy."
"And what happens now?"
"We dress you and then take you to the Portal." Nephredana turned and gestured to the woman in leather. "Bring the clothes."
Gibson swung his legs over the side of the bed and then paused before attempting to stand. "So this is it?"
Nephredana nodded. "This is it."
They dressed him in white: white suit, white shirt, white patent shoes. He guessed that it was symbolic of his new purification, although the suit leaned a little too much toward Saturday Night Fever for his taste, with overwide lapels and slightly flared pants, but he figured that he couldn't be too picky in a place like the Hole in the Void. He was probably lucky that they hadn't given him a toga.
When they came out of the pink glass tower a small, silent crowd was waiting for them. Yancey Slide was there, as were Long Tom Enni-Ya, the aggressive munchkin, the demon from Xodd, and a dozen or more other faces from the Rearing Eagle. Even Rayx stood in back of the gathering with a bandaged shoulder and a sour expression. It had to be a moment of truth for the idimmu as well as for Gibson. They were pinning a lot of hope on the Prophecy of Anu Enlil and his being the one, and very soon they would see if that hope was going to pay off.
A strange little procession started out of the valley of the Hole in the Void, away from the cluster of buildings and along a fold between two of the orange hills. Nephredana led the way, immediately followed by Gibson, while the other three women who had taken part in the preparation walked behind him, side by side. Gibson had half expected that Yancey Slide would assume some sort of major role in all mis, but it seemed that the women were in complete charge of his being offered to the Portal.
Overhead, the sky was going insane, as if responding to the events that were taking place on the ground, and the air was alive with wild bursts of random energy. Jagged swaths of black raced from horizon to horizon like angry electronic clouds against a juddering background of purple and magenta pixels that careened and danced in spectacular swirls and eddies as if in the grip of some huge and complexly shifting magnetic field, and although there were regular explosions of dazzling brightness, for the most part the Hole in the Void was cloaked in a dim semi-twilight, which, at least as far as Gibson was concerned, was a more than fitting background for a man going to a fate at which he could only guess.
The route of the procession took them past the gates of the antebellum mansion that was almost completely hidden in its grove of oaks. Three pale, black-clothed, vampiric figures stood just inside those gates, apparently waiting for the procession to come by.
As Nephredana drew level with them, one of them called out to her in a high hissing voice. "Are you taking him to the Portal?"
"Is he the one? "
"We hope so,"
As they crested the hill behind the mansion and Gibson took one final backward look at the buildings that constituted such civilization as could be found in the Hole in the Void, he had the feeling that he was walking back in time, away from the technology and the intrigues of the world in which he'd been born and raised and back across a hundred centuries or more into a pagan past, where men had mattered little and power had been in the truly demonic hands of the idimmu and their unimaginable master. Maybe it had been the ritual, or maybe it had been the drugs, but he knew that he had reached a place beyond fear where all will was gone and everything was inevitable.
In some respects, the Portal itself was something of an anticlimax after all the buildup. Gibson was too far gone at that point, and had been through too much, to be overawed by a ring of megaliths, no matter how ancient or how large. He had seen Stonehenge and the Great Pyramid and the ruins at Nazca, and his only thought on approaching this stone circle on the orange hillside was the mundane cliche: When you'd seen one, you'd seen them all.
The procession halted, and Nephredana turned to face him. "From here, you go on alone."
Gibson hesitated. He might be beyond fear, but that didn't mean he was about to rush into whatever foolish shit was going to present itself. In many respects, it was like going on stage. At that instant when he went to step into the lights, it had always been the very last place in all the world that he wanted to be, and yet he was in such a transcendental position of no turning back there was no choice but to go on. On the stage, though, the adrenaline pumped and the crowd howled and the show started and the orgone high came along and carried you away with it. There among the tall blue-gray megaliths, he didn't know what was going to come along and carry him away.
He looked back at Nephredana. "What am I supposed to do now?"
"Just walk forward to the center of the circle."
"On my own?"
"This is as far as we go."
Gibson drew two, quick breaths, sighed, shrugged, and then marched smartly forward, talking to himself like whistling past the graveyard. "What the fuck, let's get to it."
When he reached the center of the circle, the worst possible thing happened. Exactly nothing. Zip. Sweet fuck-all.
"Fucking great. Now start jerking me around. I guess that's a god for you."
Gibson had a sneaking feeling, however, that it wouldn't stay nothing for very long, and, in around twenty seconds, he was proved right. The world started to revolve. Like a broken wheel, with him at the hub, the huge, hundred-ton stone columns began to move as one, spinning the hillside around him. He looked for the small crowd of idimmu but they had vanished. The megaliths were now moving faster, circling him at a gathering speed that was already turning them into a blur. It occurred to Gibson that perhaps he was being a little subjective about it all and that it was actually him doing the spinning. He should have felt dizzy but he didn't. For one thing, he was too busy watching the ground at his feet become transparent. He hadn't experienced anything like it since the time back in the seventies when he'd accidentally OD'd on PCP by mistaking it for cocaine and making a pig of himself.
He seemed to be floating very slowly down into a long spiral shaft, a virtual kaleidoscope of light, that extended deep into the unnatural bowels of the Hole in the Void. It was as if George Lucas had made a deluxe, no-expense-spared version of The Time Tunnel. Dark loops of crackling energy revolved around him, and beyond them, the wall of the shaft danced with multicolored patterns and images. The air was filled with bizarre snatches of sound, voices and music and sounds that Gibson couldn't begin to identify melted and blended as though all the broadcasts in a hundred dimensions were trying to crowd onto the same single wavelength. The deeper he sank, the louder the sound became. At first it had been an easily ignorable background buzz, but it rapidly increased both in volume and intensity until he felt as if he was being impaled on a column of white noise.
And then it all stopped, and he was alone in total darkness, with his ears ringing and his eyes straining for dancing afterimages, and he realized that he was falling. He opened his mouth to scream but the void snatched away the sound. Points of red light flashed up past him, and they made the sensation of falling even worse. How the hell did astronauts ever get accustomed to free-fall? Of course, astronauts knew, at least intellectually, that the ground wasn't going to come up and smash them to pulp at any second. Gibson had no such consolation.
And then the red lights were corning up more slowly, as though he was slowing down. Could he be dropping to a soft landing? He hit before he even expected it, no bump, just a cessation of the falling sensation and the world expanding laterally in two ripples of light.
And then he was in the landscape, a place of hanging mist and rocky spires, pristine uneroded geology and billowing vapors. He was standing on a flat tabletop mesa of white crystalline rock, looking across a wide valley to a horizon that was shrouded in cloud, breathing deeply of the seashore smell of ozone that was carried on the wind. At regular intervals, somewhere deep within the clouds, flashes of gold fire would briefly erupt, like infant volcanoes venting their heat and infusing the layers of mist with bright luminous refractions. With each gout of flame, the faint reek of sulfur wafted past Gibson, and he had the distinct feeling that he was in a place where time was just beginning, a world that was before protozoa, let alone dinosaurs.
"This must be the world when it was young."
"Apt, don't you think?"
"What?" Gibson spun round but there was very little to see, although something was definitely there, a disturbance, a wavering of the air about four feet from him across the flat, deck-like top of the mesa.
"I remarked how apt it was, a newborn world waiting for the second birth."
Gibson took a step back; his mind was suddenly bristling with feral animal fear. Something that had been keeping him calm had released its grip, and he was poised to run blindly with no thought of the consequences. "Who or what are you?"
"That's not an easy question."
Gibson swallowed hard. "Are you Necrom?"
The infant volcanoes all went off at once, and sheet lightning flashed across the sky with a single clap of thunder.
The voice came again. It was a male voice and hardly godlike. "Am I Necrom? Now, that is a truly impossible question, particularly when so much still sleeps. Am I a separate entity or merely a detachment of the whole? I would imagine that question could be pondered by generations of philosophers without their coming to a satisfactory conclusion. Such is the complexity of Gods. Look on me as a messenger, if it makes it any easier. A herald, an angel, if you like."
Even Gibson wasn't buying this. "One of Necrom's angels?"
"Hark the herald angels sing."
"I'm getting the feeling that I'm being fucked with."
"Perhaps I should slip in a mortal form so you don't start being difficult."
The figure that appeared looked like a young debonaire Cab Calloway in a white tailsuit, white tie, and fistful of diamond rings. A small white table appeared right beside the figure, on which was an ice bucket that contained a chilling bottle of champagne. The figure lifted the bottle from the ice. "Drink?"
Gibson realized that there was going to be no way to short-circuit the foolishness and all he could do was to go with it.
Cab Calloway plucked a glass out of the air, filled it, and handed it to Gibson. "Your health."
"Drinking champagne in hell?"
"What makes you think this is hell?"
"I was sent by demons, wasn't I?"
"If you'd prefer it…" Cab Calloway snapped his fingers. The two lateral ripples of light came again, and, in the blink of an eye, Gibson was in a fourteenth-century hell. The terrain was much the same-he and Necrom's messenger still stood side by side at the top of a rocky promontory, looking out across a wide valley-but now, instead of mist and crystalline rock formations, it was a bubbling cauldron of red fire, hot slag, and belching black smoke that made Gibson gag. All through this blast furnace of a nightmare, miserable snaking columns of pleading naked people were being herded by fearsome misshapen devils armed with pikes, pitchforks, and a whole array of spiked devices for which there were probably no names. The heat was unbearable and the continuous sound of screaming rolled around Gibson and the messenger like a hot howling gale. The messenger had become one of the devils, no longer Cab Calloway but a classic Beelzebub, towering over Gibson, horns, goat legs, shaggy red fur, reptile skin, and glowing feline eyes. "Now you really are drinking champagne in hell."
Gibson looked down at the glass in his hand: the champagne was coming to a boil. That was too bad, it had tasted like a good vintage. Horny fingers snapped again and slavering fanged mouth curved into a grin. "Or maybe this would be closer to your taste…"
The lights rippled outward, and Gibson was in an art-deco Hollywood heaven where mirrored pillars rose from a bed of fleecy clouds and a glass staircase was draped with blond Busby Berkley angels in diaphanous shifts who wore tinsel wings and sang elevator harmonies into a sky of truly monotonous blue.
"Okay, okay, I get the point. Everything is just an illusion."
Snap, flash, everything changed.
They were back in the primal Valley of mist and crystal, and Cab Galloway was laughing at him. "Even illusion is a very inexact word. If you accept the idea of illusion you also have to accept the counterconcept that somewhere there exists a solid reality and you, if anyone, really ought to know by now that is not the case. How would you feel about another glass of champagne?"
Gibson nodded, going with the flow. "I'd like another glass of champagne."
"Even though it's only an illusion."
"I've already told you you'd made your point."
Necrom's messenger refilled Gibson's glass. "You seem to be getting a little impatient."
"I thought I'd been brought here for a purpose."
"Indeed you have."
"All I've seen so far are party tricks."
"That's because my function is to keep you amused."
"I don't understand."
The messenger produced a second glass out of the air and poured himself a drink. "I know that you're in a place that you're absolutely incapable of understanding, and very frightened, and the preparation you went through for this probably led you to expect the worst. Believe me, I understand your fears and I must compliment you on how well you're standing up to them."
"Are you going to tell me what you have in store for me, or just leave me hanging?"
"That's the terrible secret, Joe. Nothing is going to happen to you. At least, not in the way you imagine it. No fiery pits, no laser dissection, you're not going to be impaled on a shaft of burning chrome. To be truly precise, what's going to happen to you is already happening."
Gibson turned, looking around helplessly at the- mist-shrouded illusion world. "This is it?"
"You are a specimen, Joe, a sample if you like. Maskim Xul was motivated to bring you here."
"Who the hell is Maskim Xul?"
The messenger made a small, apologetic bow. "I'm sorry. You know him by his new name. You know him as Yancey Slide."
"So it was Slide pulling the strings? He was behind it all?"
The messenger shook his head. "Slide was only a part of a very complex selection process."
Gibson blinked. "I was selected for all this? Right from the start?"
"A great deal of care was taken in designing the test program that made sure you were the right one."
Gibson felt himself starting to lose it. "Test program?"
"A progressive filter system that, in the end, came up with you."
Events had come full circle and Gibson had returned to the perpetual unanswered question. "But why me?"
"In the beginning, you attracted attention because your behavior, your musical career had made you stand out from the rest of your kind."
"I didn't stand out that much. I wasn't president or anything."
"In that respect, you were just plain unlucky."
Inside the clouds, an infant volcano spouted golden flame.
"You stood out from the crowd, but you had also put yourself in a position where you wouldn't be particularly missed if you were taken to another dimension or, as you are now, to a place beyond the multidimensional universe. As with so many things in the affairs of your species, the root cause of the chain of events was really a matter of happenstance."
Gibson paused to sip his champagne. He needed time to think, to make sense out of what was going on. He wasn't too optimistic about his chances, however. "I thought it was the stream-heat who first latched on to me."
"They were allowed to believe that and, indeed, they did play a very useful part after they'd been panicked into believing that you were somehow crucial to their so-called war against Us, and they involved you in that ludicrous conspiracy in Luxor with your dimensional counterpart."
" A whole country got itself nuked to hell on account of that."
"That's why We had to motivate Yancey Slide very quickly to get you out of there. Such a catalyst potential had to be examined."
"And how did you motivate Slide?"
"Slide believed that he was following the Prophecy of Ami Enlil, but, in fact, he was actually running the tests on you to determine if you were in fact the specimen we required. The idimmu are easy to control. They are, after all, Our creatures."
"What about all the people who died?"
"Your species spends half its time dying. It's really no concern of Ours."
Gibson slowly shook his head. "This is all too much."
The messenger's voice was very quiet. "It's only a tiny part of it."
A faint flush of silent lightning flashed across the sky, and Gibson stared silently across the valley. The messenger took a step toward him. His voice was almost sympathetic. "I wouldn't try to comprehend it, Joe. You can't. You're no longer in the reality of men and it's really no disgrace not to understand."
"You still haven't told me what's being done to me."
"What happens to a specimen, to a sampling? You're being tested, analyzed, typed, recorded, and inspected. Right now, we are making an evaluation of everything from the mutating microorganisms that infest your body to the conditioned responses of your subconscious. Everything about you is being absorbed and considered. We know your childhood memories and your DNA codings, the weaknesses in your immune system, and the capacity of your paranoia."
Gibson was starting to become alarmed. "I don't feel anything."
"There's no need for you to feel anything. Would you rather you were stretched out on a cold steel table with tubes up your nose and electrodes in your brain?"
"And stop all the self-pitying nonsense about why me, why me. It's you and them were the breaks. Things could be a lot worse. And also don't flatter yourself, there are thousands of you from as many dimensions being tested in the same way. Much has changed in the time We've been dormant and there is much that We have to know before We can plan Our waking behavior."
"You make it sound like I'm being fed into a giant computer."
The messenger shrugged. "Think of it as market research of the gods if it helps you accept your situation."
"Who says that you're gods? All this god talk only started just recently. Before that, everyone called you a superior being."
"Isn't a superior being a god to the inferior being? Go ask your dog."
Gibson was gripped by the flash of heady, self-destructive rebellion. "Yeah? Well I ain't no dog and I don't see you as a god."
The messenger's eyes hardened, and Gibson realized that his rebellion may have been a very bad idea. This was confirmed when lightning lanced across the clouds, chased by an extended and deafening clap of thunder, and even the ground trembled. The messenger's voice deepened and intensified to one much closer to Gibson's expectations of Necrom, the kind of voice that biblical prophets must have heard when they went one-on-one with Jehovah.
"WHAT'S THE MATTER, LITTLE MAN? DON'T WE MEASURE UP TO YOUR EXPECTATIONS OF A GOD?"
Gibson was so afraid that he responded by blurting out the absolute truth. "I never heard of a god who went to sleep for fifteen thousand years."
The messenger's voice instantly returned to the way it had been. "That is a weakness."
Gibson realized that he had possibly spotted another weakness. Necrom, or at least this part of Necrom that he was being allowed to experience, could get angry, could come near to letting go of its control. He had a strong feeling that it had come close to blasting him. How was that possible? It shouldn't be possible for him, Joe Gibson, alcoholic and washed-up rock star, to spot a weakness in a being that was so powerful that it could alter his reality on a whim. It was only then that another, even more terrifying thought struck him. If it could read his mind…
"Of course We can read your mind, and that is an avenue of thought that We would advise you to avoid."
A long silence passed before the messenger finally offered the bottle of champagne again. "Refill?"
Gibson held out his glass. The champagne bottle appeared to remain perpetually full, and, as the messenger poured, Gibson asked a question. "You keep referring to yourself as 'We,' as though you were some kind of composite being."
"We are, for the moment. Only when the waking is complete will we achieve Our Full Singular Wholeness."
"And what will happen when you are fully awake?"
The messenger winked. "That's something you will have to wait and see."
"Yancey Slide seemed to think…"
"The idimmu are tough and cunning but they suffer from a great narrowness of vision. They believe that our return will make things as they were fifteen thousand years ago. I can guarantee that this will not be the case."
"Can I ask one more question?"
"It hasn't stopped you so far."
"What's going to happen to me?"
"You will eventually be returned to your dimension of origin. It may be necessary for you to remain here for a while until an unobtrusive reentry cover can be devised, so you're not seen to simply appear out of nowhere. We assure you that, in the meantime, you will be quite comfortable."
"How long will I have to stay here?"
"It shouldn't be more than a couple of weeks, as you perceive time."
Gibson nodded. "I guess I can handle that."
The thought occurred to him that, if he was placed in the right illusion, it might even constitute a well-earned rest. The messenger winked. "Look on it as a rest, Joe."
"I wish you wouldn't read my mind."
"Then just don't read it back to me."
The messenger sighed. "If it makes you happier to pretend."
"I take it that I'm not going to get to be the Master of Men out of all this?"
"You want that?"
Gibson grinned and shoved his thumbs into the pockets of his white pants in a decidedly hoodlum gesture. "Maybe I could handle that."
The messenger shook his head. "I'm afraid that's idimmu romance. Things will be a good deal more complicated this time around."
"So I just drop back into my old life?"
The messenger laughed. "Your old life has gone. You've seen far too much to return to the way you were. Of course, the memories of what you've been through, particularly this current episode, will become blurred and indistinct."
Gibson was outraged. "I'm going to forget all this?"
"Your own mind will do it. You're not going to rest easily with the memory of talking to a superior being. You're going to suppress and mythologize all of this, and turn it into some symbolic peyote vision, something that you'll be able to handle more easily."
"You said I'd forget temporarily."
"When the time comes for Us to enter your world, We may need you to serve Us. When that time comes, your memories will return."
Gibson looked sideways at the messenger. "I'm going to be your servant?"
"We always reward Our servants, and if it's power you want, We can easily give you power."
"I've really never been that keen on power."
"You make that obvious in your behavior. It may be one of your redeeming features."
An abrupt flash of crimson stained the clouds across the valley. It seemed as though one of the volcanoes was burning red rather than gold. A second volcano belched red flame and purple smoke that spread like a stain across the clouds.
Gibson looked sharply at the messenger. "What is that? Is something wrong?"
The messenger didn't answer right away. He stood staring out across the valley at the angry red intrusion, as though listening to instructions inside his head. "We have been made aware that the Hole in the Void is under attack."
"Streamheat forces are attacking the Hole in the Void. They have transported aircraft and heavy weapons across the dimensions and seem to be bent on wiping out the idimmu."
Gibson looked around as though he expected them to come bursting through the cloud cover. "Thank God I'm here and not there."
The messenger was shaking his head. "You cannot remain here. You have to return immediately to the Hole in the Void."
"What the hell would I want to do that for? The streamheat don't like me any more than they like the idimmu. I could be killed."
"You will die for sure if you remain here."
"But you told me…"
"This attack has changed everything. The Hole in the Void is your link. It is the route by which you are connected to your dimension of origin. If that link is broken or that route is severed, you will become a wraith and you will simply wither to nothing."
"I can't stay here?"
The landscape vanished and the Messenger of Necrom along with it. For a fleeting instant, Gibson seemed to be in some gray, indistinct limbo, a place of fog and gloom and visual distortion. He sensed that there were other beings crowded around him, but beings who were not completely there, insubstantial and ghostly, a whisper on his senses rather than something fully real.
And then he was standing on an orange hillside above the valley of the Hole in the Void, right in the middle of a fullblown and very real firefight.